Friday, June 10, 2011

5 Fluctuating Forms Of Gender-Specific Language

The English language is riddled with suffixes that specify gender, and efforts to mirror the slow-but-sure improvement in gender equality are reflected in shifting usage in this area. Such progress, however, is inconsistent. Here's where we stand with various treatments:

1. -ess

Words altered to include an -ess ending to specify reference to a woman are generally going by the wayside: Often, a female movie, television, or theater performer is identified as an actor (though performing-arts awards retain best-actress categories), whereas terms for female members of royalty such as princess and duchess, in keeping with the anachronistic survival of the concept, persist.

Likewise, there's no reason to genderize host or waiter, or author or poet, but we hold on to enchantress, goddess, and mistress. (And, if we have any sense, we hold on to enchantresses, goddesses, and mistresses.) In addition, as you know, stewards and stewardesses were transformed into flight attendants long ago. (The U.S. Navy, by the way, no longer uses steward as an official term for an officers' attendant.)

2. -e

English preserves a few terms derived from French in which an e is appended to the end of the masculine form of some words to refer to a woman, including fiancee and confidante. Conversely — and obscurely — a man who divorces his wife is a divorce (like the feminine form, pronounced "di-vor-say" and, in print, with an acute accent mark over the e).

3. -trix

Another French form, -trix, is obsolete when referring to a female aviator, but English preserves the form in dominatrix, even though one rarely refers to a dominator (not in polite company, anyway).

4. -ine and -ina

Hero applies to male and female do-gooders alike (and retiring heroine avoids the accidental misspelling as heroin). But what about those heroes of the US government, the drug czars and the energy czars and their ilk? (The word czar is the more modern Russian form — the older variant is tsar — of Caesar.) No president has appointed a female czar, but if that happened, would we refer to her as a czarina? Not likely, except in jocular usage.

5. -woman and -person

The same folks who bristle at being scolded when they refer to humankind as mankind will no doubt fuss about this next point, but don't use the suffix -man unless you're referring to a man: It's not necessary to employ the cumbersome term chairperson to refer to a female presiding or administrative officer or the position itself, or to distinguish between a chairman and a chairwoman; just say chair. (No, chair is not just the word for a piece of furniture; it's the time-honored term, on its own, for an elected or appointed position.)

Unfortunately, no such shortcut exists for referring to members of legislative bodies, but congresswoman and assemblywoman are no-brainers. The nonspecific terms congressmember and assemblymember are attested but fairly rare; the open forms (with Congress and Assembly capitalized) are more common. ("Member of Congress" is also frequently employed, but "member of the Assembly" is not.)

But what do you call a woman who likes to fish (other than, um, a great catch?). Fisherwoman may seem awkward, but that's just because we're not used to it yet. As is the case with chairwoman or congresswoman, it's a matter of only one more small syllable inserted in an already lengthy word. If you're a man who washes clothes for a living, do you want to be referred to as a washerwoman, just because that's the dominant usage? By rejecting gender-neutral language, you're subjecting half the population to the same indignity.

This isn't political correctness run rampant; it's inevitable — and inexorable — usage correction, part of the evolution of language (with the obligatory Neanderthal-like branch stubs on the evolutionary tree like waitron and waitperson as gender-neutral forms of waiter).

Thanks to Mark Nichol / Daily Writing Tips


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